Britain Puzzled By Mansion Murder

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Rui Viera / AP

The burned-out mansion of a financially troubled British businessman and his family in Maesbrook, England, 175 miles (280 kilometers) northwest of London. Inset: Christopher Foster, his wife Jill and their 15-year-old daughter Kirstie (foreground)

The country estates of rural England have long proved happy hunting grounds for Britain's fictional sleuths. Holmes, Poirot, Inspector Morse: all have tackled intricate and ingenious plots in the creaky corridors and labyrinthine gardens of the manor house. But when constables from the West Mercia Police force responded to a fire at the $2.4 million Osbaston property in Maesbrook in the west of the country last week, they uncovered murders that have so far proved more bafflingly chaotic than subtle or cunning.

Three human carcasses have been located inside the burned-out ruin of the compound, along with the remains of three horses and four dogs. All the animals and at least one of the humans had been shot before the house was set on fire. Police suspect arson because the fire appears to have started at three different parts of the property; when firefighters arrived on the scene, a horse trailer with flat tires, placed across the main entrance, hampered their access.

The Osbaston property belonged to a local millionaire businessman, Christopher Foster, 50, who lived with his wife Jill, 49, and their 15-year-old daughter Kirstie. On Sunday night, police announced that dental records identified one of the bodies as Jill Foster and confirmed that she had been shot in the head before being consumed by the flames. The two other bodies have not been identified but British press reports suggest that police believe they belong to Christopher and his daughter Kirstie.

In a statement released to TIME on Monday, West Mercia Detective Superintendent Jon Groves said identification of the bodies was being hindered by the difficulty of removing one of the charred bodies from the badly burned home.

"We had the remains confirmed as human late last night by a pathologist and work has now become to extract the body," he said. "Due to its position, it will take some time to remove."

Reports in the British press suggest that police are focusing on the possibility of a murder-suicide, as tests are being carried out to establish whether a rifle, which was legitimately owned by Foster, was the murder weapon. The rifle was found near the body of Jill Foster.

Foster was threatened by financial ruin at the time of the crime. He faced the compulsory liquidation of his company, Ulva Limited, which supplies insulation technology to oil rigs, and had been hit with large bills from creditors and tax authorities. He had also recently been forbidden to sell his home without permission of the liquidator. The Guardian newspaper reported that earlier this year that a High Court judge branded Foster "bereft of the basic instincts of commercial morality" after discovering that he had been stripping Ulva of assets and transferring them to a new firm.

But The Sunday Telegraph raised the possibility that Foster's debts might also have made him an assassination target for shady business associates. It reported that last year Foster was involved in a court case in which he accused two men of blackmail after a land deal in Cyprus fell through. The defendants accused Foster of making up the allegation to cover up an attempt to have the pair assaulted.

If Foster was facing ruin, he appears to have retained to the end a veneer of decorum befitting an English gentleman. In interviews with the Telegraph and other papers, his neighbors were shocked to learn that Foster was in financial trouble at all. They described a genial man besotted with his family and his daughter, Kirstie, whose smiling picture has run across front pages alongside images of the charred ruins of her house. Friends have remembered her as a vibrant girl who loved her three horses, Scrumpy Jack, Breezy and Bramble, all now dead.

There was a time perhaps when details such as the playful names of Kirstie's horses would be all that stood as testament to an innocence so brutally destroyed by crime. Diaries and letters would never have survived the arsonist's blaze. But in today's era, Kirstie's page remains on the social networking site Bebo. She lists her best friends as Mel and Shan: "I love you two ... the Best Friends I Could Ever Ask For Always There When I Need You. X."